By Susan Carter
You might remember that Cally Guerin’s blog a few weeks ago described her fascination for punctuation and its expression in a two-hour workshop. I share her obsession: my workshop focussing solely on the comma is three hours long. (I hasten to add that this is partly because students do a lot of the teaching, and we also get to talk about style and voice.)

Cally covers the point that you must not separate a subject from its verb, even when that sentence subject is one of those giant mutant nouns that academic writing is so prey to, made up of the noun word with a whole heap of adjectival stuff before and after it. You would not be tempted in a simple sentence to put in a comma between subject and verb—”The dog, ran”—. However, you might be tempted in one of those gruesome academic sentences like: “The subjects who had been previously identified as at risk from multiple socially-constructed hierarchies that disempowered them at the crucial years of puberty, were found to be more likely to….”. I’m running over that point again because I agree with Cally that it is invaluable to doctoral writers when they get to the proofing stage.

And I am putting it into a writing guide that I’m revising for staff involved in our university’s publication. One of my goals in revision is to redress the balance given to different aspects of punctuation—the comma previously on received a mere third of a page while ‘words to be capitalized’ occupied four pages. Even a non-obsessive can see that the comma is more crucial than that. (My indignant defence of the importance of commas has triggered this post.)

So, I’m adding to the guide as follows.

Often decisions about using a comma will be based on whether additional information in a sentence is essential or not. Non-essential words, phrases and clauses can be omitted without altering the meaning of the sentence. Judge what is essential by which words need to cluster together to make one meaning.

When not to use commas
Never separate words from their essential meaning-cluster, that is, essential to the grammar or the meaning with commas. For example, it is wrong to write “Boys, who learned ballet, were found to be better soccer players.”

“This” and “which” clauses and commas
We begin clauses with the word “that” when the content is essential: “The data that showed anomalies has been destroyed” (other data wasn’t necessarily destroyed). So the rule is that “that” clauses don’t have a comma before them. “Which” clauses, in contrast, are used for non-essential material and it is kind to readers to always have a comma before them. “The data, which took five years to accumulate, was destroyed” (all the data was destroyed).

If you insert non-essential detail into the middle of a sentence and use bracketing commas, you must have two (just as you need two brackets). You can often get away with none but not one.

Never use commas that disrupt the logic of grammar
1. Never separate a noun from the verb it governs, even when the noun has adjectival stuff round it that makes it fairly long (as in that giant mutant noun example above). E.g., it is wrong to write “The evidence that came from a longitudinal study involving 52 first-in-the-family graduates and how their careers developed, was surprising.” That sentence cannot take a comma.

2. Never put a comma between a verb and its object. It is wrong to write “The rat ate, the poison” or “The chemical was then heated, to 200 degrees Fahrenheit.”

In general, there is a tendency in academic English to leave commas out when they are optional. If in doubt, it is safer to leave them out than risk breaking up a meaning-cluster or disrupting grammatical logic.

When to use commas
Use a comma to differentiate items in lists. Note that some pairs are regarded as a single idea and the comma will come after the second item, e.g, “Guests choose from eggs and bacon, filled croissants, and cereal, yoghurt and fresh fruit” (they have three options).

Put a comma after any introductory material before a main clause, especially if it is more than a few words long. This makes for easier reading, especially when the introductory material is long, e.g., “While she was analysing comments about scrum experience from her All Black interviews, scrum rules were changed.”

In our guide, we prefer not to use the Oxford comma (before the penultimate item in a list like dogs, cats, and small children)—we tend to follow British preference down-under rather than American. Personally, I’m never sure why there is such interest in this relatively unimportant anomaly.

It does raise the point that there are different practices between British and American writing, particularly around the punctuation at the end of quotations. For those of us outside these places, consistency is the main rule. Take your pick and then stay in that zone.

Let us know whether you think it is sometimes helpful for the DoctoralWriting SIG to mention the mechanics of grammar and punctuation or not—we’re pedants who find this stuff intriguing but we don’t want to irritate.

P.S. And if you are also a fellow pedant, one great site on punctuation and grammar comes from NASA courtesy of Mary K. Mccaskill.